‘The Revenant’ Is Now an Important Movie About the Struggles of Indigenous Peoples, Apparently

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Last night, amidst the arid douche-baggery of Ricky Gervais and the occasional charms of drunken celebrities on live television, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s flabby misery slog The Revenant won not just the expected Best Actor Golden Globe for Leonardo DiCaprio, but two more prizes as well: Best Picture (Drama), and Best Director. Now, Spotlight and Carol fans – hello, my people – need not worry just yet that these honors will translate into some sort of Oscar sweep; the Globes have a pretty spotty track record for predicting Best Picture and Best Director. But in their acceptance speeches, the actor and director tipped their hands at their new strategy for going all the way: repositioning their movie as an earnest statement about the plight of indigenous peoples. Never mind that this agenda has fuck-all to do with The Revenant itself.

They’ve certainly been playing the long game here. Most of us first heard anything of substance about the film back in July, when a Hollywood Reporter feature not only quoted, but breathlessly headlined, a crewmember who called its over-schedule, over-budget shoot “a living hell.” Once upon a time – in the days of Apocalypse Now or Heaven’s Gate or Waterworld – such a dispatch would’ve kicked off a cycle of bad buzz, indicating an out-of-control “troubled production” that should be regarded with suspicion of self-indulgence. Instead (and, it must be said, somewhat ingeniously), The Revenant’s publicity team leaned in to the stories, crafting a narrative of actors and filmmakers who suffered, endlessly suffered, for their art – and should be awarded accordingly.

So we heard about the misery of the bitter cold shoot. We were fed nuggets about Iñárritu’s insistence of shooting only in natural light, and in sequence. Rumors swirled that Iñárritu and co-star Tom Hardy came to blows. God help us, we even heard about how DiCaprio consumed raw bison liver on camera – a moment about which Iñárritu insisted, “Without it, he may not have gotten to the truth.” One is reminded of the perhaps apocryphal story about Laurence Olivier’s reaction to Dustin Hoffman’s Method madness, “Why don’t you just try acting?”

But in the Revenant hype cycle, we’ve been told over and over again that this is acting – that’s what’s important is not connection to a character or communication of an emotional state to an audience, but the physical trials an actor goes through to film a movie. “I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do,” DiCaprio told Yahoo. “Whether it’s going in and out of frozen rivers, or sleeping in animal carcasses, or what I ate on set. [I was] enduring freezing cold and possible hypothermia constantly.” In other words, PLEASE GIVE ME AN OSCAR, LOOK HOW HARD I’M WORKING FOR IT.

Maybe it’s just me, but it feels, even as the film finally went wide last weekend to considerable commercial success (and all complaints aside, an R-rated non-franchise adult-oriented Western doing bang-up business is an unalloyed good), like a backlash is a-brewing – that people are more than a little tired of hearing about how this shoot was soooo ardous. (As many a film writer noted last night, if we’re just giving out awards based on difficulty of production, then Revenent needs to share some prizes with Mad Max: Fury Road.) And that’s what made DiCaprio’s acceptance speech so fascinating – as writer Mark Harris pointed out, you could almost watch their strategy pivot in real time.

“Two years ago we found ourselves submerged in nature with its deep complications,” DiCaprio says early in the speech, and if you can’t hear an audible “hew boy” exhale in that room, you certainly could in mine. But as he continues to thank the usual suspects – his director, his cinematographer, their crew, his co-stars, his make-up artist, the producers, his parents, his “entire team,” – and his pace picks up while the play-off music floats in, the strangest thing happens:

And lastly, I want to share this award with all the First Nations people represented in this film and all the indigenous communities around the world. It is time that we recognize your history and that we protect your indigenous lands from corporate interests and people that are out there to exploit them. It is time that we heard your voice and protected this planet for future generations. Thank you very much.

It’s not much of a surprise for DiCaprio to take an opportunity to speak out in favor of environmental causes (he’s done so fairly consistently, throughout his career) but something about that moment, about the tacked-on nature of the dedication to Native Americans (echoed in Iñárritu’s subsequent Best Picture acceptance speech), just plain sits wrong – since, as Slate’s Aisha Harris points out, pretty much the last thing The Revenant is about is indigenous peoples and their lands. It’s a frontier story about a white man’s quest for survival and, subsequently, vengeance; a handful of indigenous characters provide color, but it’s as much about “indigenous communities” as The Searchers or Broken Arrow or Run of the Arrow or any number of earlier Westerns (not that Mr. Iñárritu would dare classify his film as such) were.

Not that this should come as a surprise; insisting that this revenge-in-the-wilderness tale is actually a plea for indigenous communities is all of a piece with the self-seriousness that cripples The Revenant, and has colored its awards campaign thus far. It’s not enough for Iñárritu to make a well-crafted adventure story; he has to make a Serious Meditation on Man and Nature. It’s not enough for DiCaprio to perform his usual feats of credibility, charisma, and identification; he must freeze and suffer and gnash his teeth and eat raw meat. And it’s not enough for The Revenant to campaign as (its advocates tell me) a tough, powerful, moving, experiential drama; it must also be a campaign on behalf of indigenous people, no matter how little that has to do with what’s onscreen.

It’s painfully transparent, and awards-season cynicism of the highest order. Oscar voters will probably eat it right up.